Neuroscience and Loving Kindness

Shelley Pearce
Shelley Pearce
President, LA-CAMFT

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

While contemplating a message to our members for this February newsletter, a month in which we are bombarded with messages about love and relationships, I am reminded of a meditation practice that literally anyone can incorporate into their lives to help engender more tenderness, loving feelings, and compassion for others. It is referred to as Loving Kindness Meditation, and the efficacy of this and other similar forms of compassionate contemplation continue to be the focus of scientific research with impressive results. I offer the following brief summary regarding the brain-science of Loving Kindness Meditation as my Valentine to you all.

The complex circuitry of neurons that reflect our experience, thoughts, emotions, and behavior is an area that scientists have only just recently had the opportunity to study in depth.  One billion Euros funded by the European Commission for the Human Brain Project, followed by the one billion dollars the Obama Administration committed over a ten-year period for the BRAIN initiative, has opened doorways of exploration into the mysteries of the human mind and heart, shedding light on the complexity of function, feeling, and behavior—the very basis for what we work with as psychotherapists and counselors.

This funding helped create fascinating new fields of scientific study, leading to greater understanding of neurological diseases such as autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s diseases. Noninvasive technologies such as EEGs (electroencephalograms), fMRIs (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging,) and others, have changed the way we perceive brain activity and how it translates into feelings and thoughts.  One such area that has benefited greatly from these noninvasive research technologies is the age-old practice of meditation.

Analyzing brain activity while simultaneously tracking participants’ phenomenological perceptions has resulted in deeper insights into how brain-wave patterns ultimately reflect human experience.

Decades, now, of clinical studies have shown that meditation can increase positive emotions, boost immunity, regulate sympathetic nervous system functions and emotional responses, and activate empathy, which increases tendencies toward helping behaviors and compassion. Meditation also has been shown to reduce negative bias toward others, decrease migraines and chronic pain, and lessen symptoms of PTSD. Meditation has even demonstrated a lessening of negative symptoms in schizophrenia-spectrum disorders.

Even just a few weeks of daily meditation creates change in participants, so it’s fascinating to then compare actual brain structure and activity in people who have dedicated themselves to thousands of hours of mindfully sitting still.

Matthieu Richard, a French academic turned Buddhist monk who has practiced meditation for decades, has been called the “happiest man in the world.” He participated in 13 years of rigorous scientific study to quantify just how happy he is. Neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin monitoring his brain activity were shocked to see that when Richard meditated on “loving kindness,” the gamma waves his brain produced were off the chart—way above the typical human bandwidth of alpha, beta, delta, and theta waves. There also was impressive activity in his left prefrontal cortex compared to its right counterpart, which means he has an abnormally large capacity for happiness and a reduced propensity toward negativity.

Meditation on compassion and Loving Kindness goes beyond being aware of thoughts and breath. It focuses on feelings of goodwill, kindness, and warmth toward others, including those we do not know personally. Somehow, this caring for others gives the meditator even broader benefits—more enjoyable states (as measured by higher frequency brainwaves), less self-judgment, and even increased levels of immunity. These findings are intriguing. They ultimately validate thousands of years of practicing compassion for others’ suffering, and they give us the scientific understanding of how such practice can lead to a deeper sense of the interconnectedness of us all.

Shelley

Shelley Pearce, LMFT is currently serving as President of LA-CAMFT. She has a private counseling office in Santa Monica, and regularly consults by video conference with colleagues and clients. She serves on the board of the Global Bridge Foundation and helped create Humanistic Spirituality, an extensive, free online resource for counselors. She synthesizes a breadth of career diversity, education, experience, and a sincere desire to help in her service and practice with individuals and couples.